Whether it was a knee-jerk reaction to a disappointing 2016 and an equally disappointing start to this season, or just time to bring a long tenure to a close, the Northern Arizona University football team will be working with a new head coach after this season.
Jerome Souers and his athletic director made a joint announcement Monday to say that Souers will be leaving the NAU program after this season ends.
“Rather than wait until the end of the season, we want to celebrate Jerome’s 20 years of service with NAU,” said Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Lisa Campos. “We want our university, Flagstaff, and the Big Sky Conference to have the opportunity to thank him and wish him the best in the next chapter of his life.”
(*Update…Not so fast, Lumberjack fans. After an 0-2 start, the ‘Jacks reeled off six straight wins that included a stunning upset of unbeaten and seventh-ranked Illinois State, and suddenly the administration decided they liked the coach they had. University president, Rita Cheng, announced that Souers would return for his 21st season, citing a need to “ensure stability for the program.”)
What she didn’t say, of course, is that it also gives her plenty of time to find the next head coach.
Campos said the decision to make the announcement now was not a result of the season-opening losses, a 62-24 defeat at the hands of the Pac-12’s University of Arizona, followed by a 38-20 loss last week to Western Illinois, a small school that plays in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
However, it’s probably safe to say it was more likely due to some under-achieving performance in recent years.
Souers led the Lumberjacks to a 9-3 overall record, 7-1 in Big Sky play, in 2013 to finish runner-up for the conference title. But since then his teams haven’t been able to get over the seven-win hump and have been consistently failing to play up to potential.
The ‘Jacks entered the 2014 season ranked No. 20 among FCS programs, but went 7-5 and 5-3 in conference for a fifth-place tie. In 2015 it was more of the same as that team started out with three wins and three losses and eventually finished 7-4 and 5-3 in conference.
But 2016 may have been the season that sealed Souers’ fate. The ‘Jacks entered last season ranked No. 18 and were projected to win their conference, but lost four of their first five games. They had one shining moment in late October when they pulled off a huge upset of No. 10 Montana, but it wasn’t enough to erase the memory of a 5-6 final record and sixth-place tie in the Big Sky.
Optimism was high entering that 2016 season because NAU had an All-American quarterback returning, a record-setting receiver to throw to, and four starters from the offensive line back to protect them.
Souers took over the NAU program in 1998 and has had plenty of ups and downs through the years. His first year he posted a winning record at 6-5, but failed to get over .500 the next two years. By his fourth year in Flag he seemed to be getting the program on better footing, winning eight games in 2001 and nine in 2003.
But it fell back off again the next two years, which included just four wins in 2004 and three in 2005. After that, the program hit a plateau of mediocrity as Souers posted 6-5 marks four out of the next five years.
It wasn’t until 2012 that it appeared the program was on the rise again as Souers’ teams went 8-3 that year and 9-3 in 2013. But then the slide began that led up to last year’s major disappointment.
During his two decades with the program, Souers won a Big Sky Championship and Big Sky Coach of the Year honors. His record as NAU head coach is 112-105.
It’s probably fair to say that Souers really didn’t have a choice about moving on. But maybe he decided that if he announced his departure now, after a couple of losses, it might motivate his players to work harder the rest of the way to send him out on a winning note.
It will be interesting to see if it works.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)